Writing Danger: Don’t Create a Cliché

Photo credit: CharliePev on Flickr
During last week's discussion of whether or not cursing is acceptable in YA novels, there was one point that came up repeatedly that I thought was particularly important, namely, overuse of particular words and phrases.

Naturally in the discussion, the words referred to were curse words, but I think it's an important point nonetheless that goes beyond cursing in literature, because any word or phrase repeated too often starts to become a cliché.

Most writers will at some point or another realize that they have a sort of crutch phrase, description or word. Sometimes it varies WIP to WIP, other times it's the same word or phrase that slips it's way into every manuscript you write. Whatever the case, it's not an uncommon plight for the writer.

And when you think about it, that kind of issue doesn't sound so bad. Sure, maybe you repeat a word or phrase a little more than probably necessary, but is that really such a sin in writing?

In short? Yes.

The problem with creating these sorts of clichés is that they don't go unnoticed. You see, writing is a tricky thing because your goal as a writer is to create complete images, worlds, characters, and scenes without bringing attention to the words actually stringing the story together. You goal as a writer isn't to rub oh, look at my gorgeous writing in the reader's face—it's quite the opposite, in fact. You want to tell a story with invisible words.

So when you create a cliché in your writing with a particular word or phrase, you're bringing attention back to the words themselves. The overused phrase becomes distracting, because even if only for a second, the reader will come across the words and think, hmm, I've seen that a lot. For a second, the reader has left the story and noticed the writing.

This isn't something you necessarily need to worry about while first drafting—in first draft mode you should be solely focused on getting the words down, regardless of how many times you've repeated a particular phrase. When you're editing, however, keep a sharp eye for potential overused words and phrases and cut them out before your readers notice your words.

It's not a particularly difficult fix (the find function of most word processors is a beautiful thing), but it's definitely one worth doing.

Have you ever overused a word or phrase? How did you amend the issue? Share your experience!

30 comments:

Emily Mead said...

I think that's one of the most important parts of writing - that it's not ABOUT the writing, but about the story. For me, it's not a particular phrase that's overused, but adverbs in general. (hello, editing!) Great points.

RaiscaraAvalon said...

I probably have a ton that I just can't think of right now, but I do over-use ellipses....like...a lot. I think they're my favorite piece of punctuation. :)

Ava Jae said...

That's a fantastic point, Emily, and you're absolutely right. It's never been about the writing--the story always comes first.


On another note, I suspect that many of us have to do a round of slaughtering those adverbs. They're sneaky little words that disguise themselves in many shapes and sizes.

Ava Jae said...

Great example! I have a tendency of using em dashes--have you noticed? :D

SusanKayeQuinn said...

I've actually found my crutch words starting to be useful (when I know what they are): I use "some" and "small" as blank descriptors. A search on them highlights where I need to have more evocative descriptions. They're like little yellow tags in the MS saying, "Um, need a little more here, please?" :)

Daniel Swensen said...

All my characters are menaced by the possibility of being gummed to death by baby minks.

Daniel Swensen said...

I use em dashes to denote people being interrupted a lot.

Christina Jean Michaels said...

Glad I'm not the only one who favors ellipses and em dashes. As I write I'm compiling a list of words, phrases, punctuation, and other issues to go over during the final edit. Ellipses and em dashes are on it. Great post!

John Chapman said...

'...kissed her passionately...' is a phrase which springs to mind. it caused arguments with my co-author until a search proved how often it occured.

Khai said...

Likewise. I have toned down on it a bit in my current WiP and it has made all the difference.

Peter Reynard said...

As the saying goes, "Avoid cliches like the plague."

Ava Jae said...

Well then! It looks like abusing em dashes and other forms of punctuation is even more common than I originally suspected.


Also, compiling a list of those overused words, phrases, etc. is a fantastic idea, Christina. I imagine that would help tremendously during revision.

Ava Jae said...

Yes! Although I have other uses for it as well, which is why I tend to go a little crazy with the em dashes.

Ava Jae said...

Which is why editing is so important. :)

Ken Rahmoeller said...

Cliches are hard to find and remove on your own. That's where my critique partner comes in handy.

Ken Rahmoeller said...

Cliches can be hard to spot on your own. That's why it's good to have a critique partner.

Ava Jae said...

Interesting point, Susan! I hadn't thought of using crutch words in that way, but I can definitely understand how they could become red flags in your work.

Ava Jae said...

I'm not sure whether I find that image terrifying, or somewhat adorable.

Ava Jae said...

We often don't even realize that we've overused certain phrases until a third party points it out to us. I have a feeling you're not the only one who has overused that phrase.

Ava Jae said...

Yes! Precisely that.

Ava Jae said...

Agreed! Critique partners are fantastic for noting those kind of issues. Great point, Ken.

Angela Anderson said...

They're so hard to find in my own writing--thank goodness for my CPs! My characters tend to groan when they're annoyed, which I've been fixing.

Like you pointed out in the post, it becomes a problem as soon as the cliche pulls you out of the story. I just finished reading 'Partials' last night, and every character used the same word to insult people with. Hearing someone called a 'blowhard' the first time made me chuckle, but after the fifth separate character used the same insult, I just wanted to throw the book against the wall. It seemed careless.

Ava Jae said...

As you said, they can be difficult to find in your own writing--our brains tends to skip over those silly repetitions because they're natural to us (which is why we wrote them there in the first place). CPs definitely help.


I haven't read Partials, but that's an interesting observation. As you can see, it's not just the unpublished writers that suffer from overusing terms--they can slip into published works as well.

Grace Robinson said...

I love em dashes--and ellipses, too... :-P

On a different note, I love your statement about "tell a story with invisible words." That line right there is a great example of beautiful writing that makes its point and moves the process along, but also makes you stop and go "wow, what gorgeous writing." :)

Ava Jae said...

Thank you so much, Grace! ^_^

Emilyann Girdner said...

I really like the way you worded the all of this and specifically your statement "you want to tell a story with invisible words."
Yes, I have this problem in a big way. Here it is, the word that I absolutely want to put in every other sentence: and.
Now I know this is a necessary, basic and important word. The problem is, I tend to write "and" into my fiest draft the same way I breathe air. It is just rediculous.
The good news is that I have become aware of this so now I specifically search for the million of them in my work and rework the piece. I also only noticed this about my writing recently and I am noticing I am naturally using it less the first time around now :)
Thanks for the great post.

foscolo said...

Very good. I mysel have several clichés. As I already know they exist, after I finish writing a text, I start a search for them.

Ava Jae said...

Knowing what clichés you have trouble with in advance certainly makes destroying them later on much easier. :)

ArkAngel said...

I see the phrase "painted skies" a lot, in my writing and in others. It's a beautiful way to describe the weather, and thus, the setting, but it's overused.

Ava Jae said...

That's a good example. It's one of those clichés that was wonderful when it was original, but then became a little too popular and lost its meaning.

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